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Vaccines and International Aid

Vaccines and International Aid


At a moment when the national discourse on international aid is grounded in pessimism, David Cameron’s pledge to commit £814m to help vaccinate the world’s poorest children provides an necessary reminder of what international aid really can achieve.
Last Updated: 27-Jun-2011

In a climate defined by fiscal retrenchment and tight purse strings, the Coalition government’s still-kept pledge to increase the UK’s international aid budget to 0.7% of GDP by 2013 has been controversial at best. International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell has delivered some excellent performances in defence of the policy — particularly in terms of his promises to root out waste and corruption — but the general public still remains broadly split on the issue, as this recent article by the Spectator shows. By any definition, two to one against does not represent a favourable reaction.

However, as a more forensic analysis of the polls suggests, the reasons for public opposition relate not to a lack of national empathy, but to genuine concerns about the manner in which said money is spent. Accordingly, while a narrow majority of Brits favour the general principle of international aid, 69% fear that the it “fails to reach ordinary people in the developed world, and is wasted by corrupt governments”. And while many areas of the UK’s aid budget have raised eyebrows, funding for the Indian Space Program has become a convenient and easy target for those who argue against such charity abroad. Doubtless, some of these attacks do have their merit and waste and corruption is an inexcusable but inevitable consequence of giving. But to suggest that a country like India, which has more people in poverty than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, is not in need of charity is to ignore the world as we find it.

Hence, at a moment when the national discourse on international aid is grounded in pessimism, David Cameron’s pledge to commit £814m to help vaccinate over 80m of the world’s poorest children provides an necessary reminder of what international aid really can achieve. Indeed, surely this is a pledge that can be welcomed in all quarters? Needless to say that this is no space program. This is providing what are to the Western world rudimentary vaccines, to the poorest children around the globe.

In making the pledge, the UK is continuing an admirable tradition of humanitarianism, having given more towards the cause of immunizing the world’s poor than any other nation on the planet - £2bn over thirty years. In addition, while many might question some of the more intangible elements of the international aid program, the immunization of small children against fundamentally preventable diseases is as real and as effective as it gets. Particularly for the over £1.7m children that die from vaccine preventable diseases each year. Take the case of pneumonia. While vaccines that protect against the most common strains of the bacterium have been long available, over 1 million of the world’s poorest children are killed by the disease each year.

While Bill Gates has referred to the ‘magic’ of vaccines, UK Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of ‘the chance to save another four million lives’, adding that the idea of children dying from diseases like pneumonia in 2011 was ‘unthinkable’. Similarly, in a recent article for the Daily Telegraph, Hugh Pennington, professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, wrote that ‘the taxpayers’ additional £814 million is going to a first-class humanitarian cause’. But International Development Secretary David Mitchell arguably put it best when he said that “for £2.22, the price of a Starbucks cup of coffee, you can vaccinate nine kids”. Yet while political and elite opinion seems solidly behind the venture, what of the masses themselves?

In the realm of public opinion, while a new poll by YouGov@Cambridge found considerable opposition to ring-fencing and increasing the aid budget in general, the same report also found substantial support for the government’s decision on vaccines. Specifically, while 56% of Britons oppose the broad increase in the aid budget, 47% to 34% of those polled pledged either approval or strong approval for the decision on vaccines.

Finally, let us spare some praise for those behemoths of the pharmaceutical sector, who recently announced their decision to slash the prices of their vaccines to the developing world. Specifically, while GSK said it would offer its rotavirus vaccine at £1.50 a dose in poorer countries (a 67% cut), other companies such as Merck have since followed suit.

Instead of instinctively looking for some backstage conspiracy, let us instead praise the likes of GSK and Merck. Not so much for their philanthropic spirit, but for their simple recognition of the fact that smart economics can be accompanied by a positive moral outcome. Indeed, with growing competition from manufacturers in developing countries like India, flexibility on price in these markets was always inevitable. Yet by agreeing to large cuts in the price of vaccines bought by the GAVI international vaccine alliance, companies like GSK will ultimately contribute to saving the lives of millions of the world’s poorest children. One might also give some thought to the fact that GSK is very close to developing the world’s first malaria vaccine, which the company has already promised to sell at a margin of just 5%. With profits being reinvested in the search for new vaccines for neglected diseases. The fact that such moves may also provide a much-needed PR boost for the industry does not invalidate the outcome.